The US Constitution states that the right to declare war is the exclusive purview of Congress but the last time Congress did so was the second world war. Since then, presidents have taken the country into wars by executive action, sometimes with the backing of a congressional resolution or simply by the appropriation of military funding that implied support for a particular war.
During the last years of the Vietnam War, Congress in 1973 enacted the War Powers Resolution, which called for the president to notify Congress within 48 hours when US troops were committed to a conflict overseas. The resolution requires the president to withdraw troops after 60 days if Congress has not granted an extension or has not formally declared war. This resolution remains in effect, though it has rarely been invoked.
The war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters that began in late 2001 is the longest running war in US history. It was authorised by Congress in a resolution called the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed September 14, 2001, that allows the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organisations or persons he determines planned, authorised, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harboured such organisations or persons…”
This resolution has been liberally used by presidents since that time to go after al-Qaeda and other terror groups in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Libya and al-Shabab in Somalia. Now, some members of Congress argue that the resolution is outdated and that Congress should exert its authority by either passing a new war authorisation against groups such as ISIS or demanding that US troops withdraw from such conflicts.
The recent US-led strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities compelled members of both parties in Congress to call the attacks illegal and implore congressional leaders to reclaim their constitutional duties on war-making. Although majorities in Congress appear to support Trump’s strikes on Syria, there is a growing uneasiness about allowing the president unlimited powers in this regard. The Senate Foreign Relations is expected to soon convene a hearing on a new AUMF because the existing one is so outdated.
In February, a House of Representatives Committee hearing examined the issue of congressional authorisation; the hearing was supported by both the left-wing of the Democratic Party and the parts (especially the libertarian side) of the Republican Party.
US Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, said “Congress has failed to do its constitutional duty.” Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, argued that “the Constitution is clear: Congress is granted the power to declare war, not the president. Before we become further entrenched in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Somalia, Congress needs to debate and vote on a new [authorisation].”
A bipartisan resolution was introduced in March calling for the end of US military support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Resolution. Critics of the Yemen campaign argued that the United States is complicit in the humanitarian disaster in Yemen because it provides logistics, air refuelling and intelligence to the Saudi military. The critics have pointed out that Congress has not authorised military support in the Yemeni conflict.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who is respected on Capitol Hill, sent a letter to Congress opposing the measure. Mattis argued that he, too, was concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen but for the United States to end its support for the Saudi-led campaign “could increase civilian casualties, jeopardise our cooperation with partners on counter-terrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis.”
Mattis also argued that the War Powers Resolution should not be invoked because US forces are not engaged in hostilities.
The resolution lost by a 55-44 vote in the US Senate. Although this was a victory for the Trump administration, the fact that 44 senators voted in favour is an indication of growing war weariness and anti-war sentiment in Congress. This comes against the backdrop of increasing congressional scepticism about the US military role in Afghanistan, action that seems to have no end in sight.
With the appointment of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser, US President Donald Trump will soon have hawks in key roles in his administration.
This comes while Congress is becoming more reticent about supporting wars in the Middle East and is trying to exert more power over the deployment of troops to conflict areas. If the Democrats win more seats in Congress in the November mid-term elections — as is likely — they could team with more libertarian members of the Republican Party to muster the votes to block Trump’s plans to support military operations in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.